Good Stress

They say good stress can cause as many problems as bad stress. I don’t know, but I’m learning, because a couple of weeks filled with “good” stress are kind of knocking me out.


First, is there really such a thing as good stress? “Good” apparently depends on how you respond. According to psychologist Hans Selye, who coined the term “stress,” good stress is defined by how one perceives a stressor. Is it a negative threat or a positive challenge?

I guess my stresses are positive challenges. The big thing was my mother’s 90th birthday. People came in from Atlanta, Washington, Ontario, Oregon, and the Bay Area. It’s not a big family. There were only 22 of us, but people came who hadn’t seen each other in years, and in some cases had never actually met. Everybody got along great; there was little to no drama.

So why was it stressful? Well, there was a banquet dinner, which my brother Daniel organized, and a daytime picnic, which was mostly my responsibility. I worried about that sucker all week. Would there be decent bathrooms? Could we get a good picnic table? Were there enough cars to get people there and back? Would the sun come out, or it would be cold and miserable?

I did what research I could, but the park was at Lake Merritt in Oakland, where my Mom lives, and I live in San Francisco. It takes a bus or two and a BART train ride to get there, so it was hard to visit. I tried to get information by phone and on the Web, but people didn’t answer, and no Web site had the desired information. So I worried. Nobody else did, I noticed.

We also had the stress of finding places for out of town visitors to sleep. This required some creative use of couches and space.

As it turned out, everything was wonderful. The table we finally got overlooked the Oakland bird sanctuary and also the lake, on which dragon boat races were being held. The view was beautiful; the birds were flying around. The sun came out; the bathrooms were fine.

Fortunately, everyone helped out. I was really happy and grateful to our two sons. They drove people everywhere, ran errands for the elders, and never seemed bored or tired. It’s great to have children who make you happy and proud.

But it was still stressful — two long days of visiting, eating in groups, talking, sharing living space, worrying about logistics. So how did that affect my health or health behaviors?

As you probably know from your own experience, family dinners and events can make it hard to stay on your diet. I definitely ate more pizza and bread than I have in years. If I had diabetes, I’m sure my glucose would have been way up. Even without diabetes, I still felt pretty groggy and needed to sleep a lot.

Unfortunately, getting a good night’s sleep was also impossible. Too much noise, too many people. I found I could not meditate; even relaxation was difficult. Having an apartment full of people led me to miss my exercise and stretching. That and spending the whole day in the scooter caused my body to stiffen up. I can see how a week like this could seriously mess up a person with diabetes.

It’s over now. I wish I had a week to recover, but it’s back to work (childcare and writing). Was the overall effect good or bad? I’m feeling fatigued and having more trouble standing or moving, but that always happens when I get too tired. It should wear off. Long term, things might be good, because of the good memories and good feelings towards family. That kind of emotional and spiritual support reduces stress, I think.

I’m starting another good stress that might apply to some of you: a positive work change. I’ve recently been offered two different gigs writing chapters of textbooks. One is for community health workers in low-income communities in the USA, and the other for grassroots health workers in poor countries. The first is about chronic illness and the second is specifically about diabetes, which has become a huge problem in poor countries.

I want to take both of these jobs, but they will be a tremendous amount of work. It will be a major challenge to keep up my own body and spirit, and I might need help.

On the other hand, professors Debra Nelson of Oklahoma State University and Cary Cooper of Lancaster University (UK) say that good stress can actually counter the effects of bad stress. The positive attitudes you get from succeeding in a stressful situation help you manage other stressors.

So I’m thinking, don’t be afraid of good stress. Just remember to take the time to care for myself when the “good stress” hits. Any tips you can share on coping with positive stresses would be appreciated.

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2 thoughts on “Good Stress

  1. It was explained to me that physiologically, there is no difference between “good stress” and “bad stress.” Both are simply a manifestation of the primal “fight or flight” reflex. In prehistoric times, you would do one of those two: fight or flee. This would burn off adrenaline and associated hormones, relieving the “stress” and allowing the body to return to a normal chemical balance. In today’s “bad stress” we neither fight nor flee. We simply sit and stew. The adrenaline is not used and stimulates the production of cortisol, which contributes to all the health maladies we associate with “stress.” (Forgive me if I have some of the terminology wrong, I’m writing from memory.)

    This being understood, the best “treatment” for stress -good or bad- is physical activity. That’s why many people turn to exercise when they are stressed. It not only seems to relieve the sensation of stress, it physically depletes the hormones that make stress feel bad.

    In your situation, missing your exercise is probably one of the worst things you could do, and by your story it did seem to make things worse.

    The best advice I can offer is once you make exercise part of your routine, try not to make exceptions. Your gusts will understand, especially if you let them know that this is necessary to manage your illness as well as “let off steam.” Some of them may even want to join you.

    As for your writing jobs, all I can say is in my experience scheduling becomes extremely important when writing professionally. Set times to break and exercise, even if you’re “on a roll.” I have found myself in situations where I was being productive and did not want to leave the keyboard for hours at a time. I paid dearly for that when I was too stiff to walk once I did stand up.

    Which reminds me, it’s time for my walk.

  2. I very much disagree with the concept of good stress. Good stress and bad stress are psychologically and physiologically different. Good stress is really just pressure. Once you feel that you can no longer cope with that pressure, that is when stress kicks in.

    The experience is very different. One example is that when feeling pressured(good stress) you produce more noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is the fight hormone i.e. you are prepared to take on the challnege. When you feel stressed, you feel that you cannont cope so you not only produce more Noradrenaline (the fight hormone) but you also produce more adrenaline (the flight hormone) Cortisol levels also increase during stress along with many other hormones. One of the side effects is suppression of the immune system which can have negative effects on your health.

    I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as good stress. It is pressure, which still needs to be managed. I wrote an article on this topic for the American Society of Training and Development entitled ‘Helping Employees Understand Stress:

    The article is intended for reference, not promotion, so I hope it does not breach the terms of your comment section. My apologies if it does.

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